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In Tijuana, police battle drug cartels after targeting safe house

Rival drug cartels suspected in the latest confrontation in the Mexican border town.

By The Washington Post / March 5, 2008



mexico City

Mexican soldiers and federal police fought a five-hour gun battle with suspected drug gang hitmen late Sunday and early Monday in a residential area of Tijuana. At least one of the heavily armed suspects was killed and two were injured, authorities said.

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The confrontation was the latest in a series of street battles that have terrorized the border city, where rival drug cartels also turn their weapons on each other.

Monday's battle took place in Tijuana's La Mesa neighborhood, a troubled area where the police commander was killed in January, a spokesman for the Baja California public safety agency told reporters. Federal police and soldiers were conducting an operation to shut down a suspected cartel safe house. Local police, many of whom are suspected of helping cartels, did not take part.

Soldiers and police began exchanging gunfire with the suspects at about 10 p.m. Sunday and fought through the night. At least 200 soldiers cordoned off several blocks during the battle, authorities said. Horrified neighbors told local news media that they hid inside their homes until the shooting stopped at about 3 a.m.

In Tijuana, two powerful drug gangs – the Arellano Felix cartel and the Sinaloa cartel – have been fighting over control of smuggling routes. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has dispatched hundreds of troops and federal police to the city to confront the cartels.

In Monday's shootout, authorities appeared to make new use of a strategy initiated after President Calderón took office, according to Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City-based drug expert. Rather than focusing primarily on nabbing kingpins, Mr. Chabat said, soldiers also are attacking the safe houses that serve as refuges for hit squads and are trying to disrupt street operations of smugglers.

"There's a bigger focus on gathering intelligence," Chabat said. "But the narcos are responding with violence, and we're going to probably see a lot more of these street fights because the narcos have big numbers of assassins on their side."

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